Zimbabwean Pastor-In-Training Delivers Groceries During COVID-19

As published in Religion Unplugged

Zimbabwean Pastor-In-Training Delivers Groceries During COVID-19

Zoe Ramushu-Chiriseri | ztc2104@columbia.edu

Pastor-in-training, Gladys Kwedyo/Photo by Gladys Kwedyo

Wearing a surgical mask, Gladys Kwedyo doesn’t get out of her car when she reaches the town of Chitungwiza, 17 miles from her home in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. She turns off the eerily empty main road onto a narrow, more worn-out street and pulls right up to a house where an outdoor funeral is going on. No one is social distancing.

She calls out to one of her church congregants and gently reprimands the woman for leaving her house.

“I think a disaster is looming,” she says. Kwedyo instructs the congregant to grab a bag of groceries from the boot of her car. She joins her in a short prayer and then takes off. She has three more church members to visit.

The reason Kwedyo, a 60-year-old church pastor-in-training, remains in the car is not because of the coronavirus. It is because she cannot walk.

Polio robbed her of the use of her legs when she was 2 years old, but she never allowed the disability to stop her from having a fulfilling career and marriage or going into church ministry. Now, as a pandemic has effectively shut down Zimbabwe and the rest of the planet, she won’t allow her disability to stop her from helping those in need. She has a hand-controlled car, two hands and a big heart.

“I do things because they have to be done,” Kwedyo says, speaking about her life in general. She speaks of her passion for helping the less fortunate, which started many years ago when she joined the compassion ministry at her church. “We’d cook three big black pots on a Saturday and go to town and feed the ‘street kids’ — they weren’t as many of them back then,” she recalls. “I’ve never felt disabled. When there’s something that needs to be done, I think, ‘Why not me?’” Kwedyo says she and a few other women from church usually cook for the entire congregation every Sunday, but now, due to the financial crisis and food shortages in Zimbabwe, she mainly looks after the four families to whom she delivers groceries.

“I can’t recall the experience of walking because I was too young,” Kwedyo says, “but I’ve seen photos.” Her Zimbabwean parents were living and working in Zambia, but they headed home for the birth of their second child — they wanted her to carry their nationality and pride. When they returned to Zambia, there was an outbreak of polio, and Kwedyo was one of many children who suffered but survived in 1962. Despite her parents' attempts at various methods of physiotherapy, Kwedyo never walked again.

Kwedyo describes how in many African homes, children with disabilities are often the cause of marital problems, as partners blame each other for the disability and the child is seen as a burden, a curse or an embarrassment. “My parents gave me a new Shona name [after I became disabled]: Rufaro, which means we are happy.”

Kwedyo attended a boarding school for the disabled, Mukuwapasi Clinic, in the small town of Rusape. When asked if she thinks her father’s decision to place her there was good for her, she pauses to think, then hesitantly replies, “Yes. When you’re different, you are the center attraction, and people can laugh at you. We were all different — wheelchairs, crutches, different disabilities. No one laughed.” After five years, she moved to an able-bodied boarding school, as her mother wanted her closer. “My mum would carry my wheelchair, my bag and me to the bus. The bus drivers never let us pay the bus fare — not once,” Kwedyo says.

Kwedyo, second from the left, with friends/Photo by Gladys Kwedyo

Kwedyo now drives herself in a silvery gold hand-controlled Toyota. “I never thought I’d drive, but my mum told me, ‘Whatever others are doing, you can also do,’” she says. She remembers ordering her first car, a red Mazda 323 with a black interior, straight from Japan. This was when she was working as an administrator for TelOne, a government-owned telecom company formerly known as Post and Telecommunications Corporation — she worked there from 1981 until her retirement five years ago. She is now a pensioner and spends her time rearing chicken, managing a property she built in her backyard and giving back to the community. She leads the Chitungwiza branch of His Presence Ministries International church with her pastors, the Kimbinis, and another female pastor-in-training. But she makes this grocery run on her own.

The next congregant, a blind woman, 65-year-old Chengeto Muguti, is not at home. Kwedyo hears from neighbors that she has gone to weather the storm of the pandemic in a rural area. She leaves the groceries with a young man at the house. Kwedyo points out that the entire time she was in Chi-town, as it is popularly known, she does not remember seeing a single mask, sanitizer or pair of gloves. She also notes that she saw several children and teens gathering to play in the street.

Kwedyo at her Pastor-in-training Ordination/Photo by Gladys Kwedyo

As a child then a teenager, attending an able-bodied school was harder for Kwedyo. She describes it being cold and difficult to navigate, as she was the only disabled pupil at Mount St. Mary’s in Wedza.

“The bathrooms were by the dormitories. I’d make my way on my crutches, and by the time I came back to class the lesson would be over,” she says. “It got a little bit better two years in, when my parents got me a wheelchair.” She recalls making friends because many of the children wanted to push her wheelchair. “The school was on a mountain, and the form one and two [eighth and ninth grade] classes were on the lower level, but I was worried about how I’d get to the classes on the upper levels as I got older.” When she returned for 10th grade to find the headmaster had switched the classroom structures just for her, she says she felt overwhelmed with love and accepted.

Kwedyo and her husband on their wedding day/Photo by Gladys Kwedyo

While she was working at TelOne, she met the man who would soon become her husband, Aloise Kwedyo. “I didn’t want to get married,” she says, “so after two years of dating, when I saw he was getting serious, I dumped him.”

When they got back together several months later, Kwedyo says Aloise went straight to speak to her aunt and then her father about marriage. In Zimbabwean tradition, the bride-to-be usually tells her aunt (her father’s sister), who would then pass the message on to her brother. Kwedyo recalls her father also broke tradition by requesting to speak to her husband directly. Usually a groom does not even attend the lobola negotiations, let alone speak to the father of the bride — this is all done through elder male relatives.

“My father told him, ‘You realize my daughter will be served by you and not the other way around — even your mother, she will be doing that?’ Aloise said yes, he’d considered this and was personally prepared, as I would be living with him.” Kwedyo’s father was referring to the tradition in which a new bride in the family is usually given the household chores and made to serve the husband’s family. Many times, this tradition is used to abuse young women.

“My mum was shocked when I told her about me getting married, and I said to her, ‘Why are you shocked? You told me I’m just like everyone else. Other young girls are getting married, and so why shouldn’t I?’” Kwedyo laughs as she remembers this. Thinking back to their conversation about marriage, she reflects, “That’s when I realized how difficult [raising me] must have been for her. She was stressed and anxious for me, but she let me go.” Kwedyo says her mother gave chores to her and her six siblings equally when growing up — laundry, dishes, cleaning the floor. No exception was made for her.

Kwedyo says she and her mother-in-law, who arrived at the end of the wedding celebration when they were packing the gifts, had a strained relationship. A few years into the marriage, her mother-in-law arrived at their office with a new prospective wife for Aloise. Aloise sent his mother a letter, saying, “This is the wife I have chosen, and since you cannot accept her, I am no longer your son.”

Kwedyo delivers groceries to Sheila Mutoma in the middle/Photo by Gladys Kwedyo

Aloise did not speak to his mother for three years, but Kwedyo says she held on to the teachings of her church — to always repay evil with good, and to love even those who persecute you. She facilitated the mending of her husband’s relationship with his mother, and Kwedyo herself helped nurse her mother-in-law until she died. Her husband had a stroke a few years later. He spent two days in the hospital, then passed away at 39.

As she drops off groceries to her third congregant of the day, Kwedyo says, “Sekuru Gurwe survives by collecting plastic. He gets $1 per kilogram.” When asked how much one Zimbabwean dollar is in U.S. dollars, she explains that the black market rate is constantly shifting, and can even change multiple times in a single day. The currency crisis in Zimbabwe has gotten even worse with the pandemic and subsequent lockdown.

“The government should be looking after the less privileged, senior citizens and those in the disabled categories,” Kwedyo says. She recounts how she’s heard rumors that the government may be giving out cash and that it would be distributed by local councilors.

But when Kwedyo drove by the council office to inquire, no one knew anything about the rumored $180 per family, in Zimbabwean dollars. She left the names of her congregants in case the councilors did start an aid program, but she points out that 4.5 pounds of chicken costs $200 in Zimbabwean dollars, so it wouldn’t make much difference.

As her grocery delivery trip nears its end, Kwedyo says she has been stopped more than once by surprised residents who asked her what she was doing, as none of the other churches had come to help. “There’s no help at all,” she says.

Kwedyo then describes a vivid memory she has. “A crippled man was dragging himself from Market Square to First Street [in Harare]. I was coming to get my passport picture taken when I parked my car and saw him. I failed to get out of the car because I’d break his heart.”

Kwedyo with her dog, Fluffy/Photo by Gladys Kwedyo

She says she is conscious that many people with the same disability as her have had less fortunate fates. She knows of a girl who was locked in a room for 18 years because her parents were embarrassed of her.

The day she saw the man dragging himself on the street, she called a security guard close by and asked him to ask the man what he wanted. “He wanted a pie, so I gave the security guard the money, watched him buy and give the man the pie, then I drove off. I could get my [passport] picture done another day,” she says.

Her fourth and final stop is at Sheila Mutoma’s home. The 32-year-old, who lives with her elderly mother, was left paralyzed on the left side after a stroke.

“Right now [with the pandemic], somehow everyone is in the same category, able-bodied and disabled,” Kwedyo says, referring to Zimbabwe’s food shortages and price hikes. According to Kwedyo, these problems have escalated since the lockdown. “The shopping centers [in the suburbs] are just as bad as Chi-town when there is a subsidized mielie-meal delivery.”

Mielie-meal is the country's staple food, and Kwedyo says people are willing to brave close-contact queues because they cannot afford the regular mielie-meal. “Things are bad,” she sighs.

Kwedyo says she will brave another trip to deliver groceries again soon. “I have so much to contribute to anyone [able-bodied or disabled]. The Lord has been good to me.” Kwedyo has lived up to her name, Rufaro — she is happy.

Amid Pandemic, the Wichita Kenyan Community Unites Virtually Through Food and Family

As published on Religion News Service

Amid Pandemic, the Wichita Kenyan Community Unites Virtually Through Food and Family

Kelly Davis | kwd2111@columbia.edu

Photo by Michael S. Williamson/Getty Images

WICHITA, Kan. (RNS) — Mirriam Oyugi planned on having her two sons at home for Easter and was eager to make all of their favorite Kenyan dishes. When their travel plans were hindered due to the pandemic, Oyugi said, her sons opted for cooking lessons instead.

“I taught my boys how to make chapatis on Easter,” Oyugi said. “We did it on video and went through the whole process together. They made theirs and I made mine. I think they had a great time!”

The Kenyan community in this Midwestern state is a close-knit group, with most of its members sharing in common their Christian faith. Protestant church membership in the community is normal, and many Kenyans come together in houses of worship to foster a sense of diaspora community.

During holidays and celebrations, they usually gather together in parks and at people’s homes, eating traditional Kenyan foods such as nyama choma (roasted meat), ugali (maize) and one of the most beloved East African dishes, chapati (unleavened flatbread). This year, of course, is looking a little different due to the coronavirus pandemic, and many Kenyans in Wichita are struggling to find ways to fellowship, a need that is heightened for those who may already feel displaced and far from family. But, like so many others around the globe, they’ve turned to technology to bring them together.

Oyugi said that since Easter, the family has made chapatis via video twice more. She said that although the family can’t be together in person, they are still as connected as ever.

“Something good came out of this,” Oyugi said. “I have some boys who can make very good chapatis.”

Many Kenyans began immigrating to the United States in the 1960s, according to members of the community. At the time, the Kenyan government was advocating for more Kenyans to pursue educational opportunities, leading to scholarships for further studies at U.S. universities. Kenya is among the top five countries with the largest number of African immigrants in the United States, with approximately 136,000 Kenyans widely dispersed across the country, according to Pew Research.

Breakthrough Community Church is a vibrant, Pentecostal congregation in southeast Wichita with approximately 50 members, headed by Kenyan pastor Anthony Macari. The church is known for incorporating both Swahili and English songs with traditional Kenyan beats to create a compelling worship experience for its congregants. Amid the pandemic, the church switched to virtual services on March 22 and there are no current plans to resume in-person services due to restrictions on large gatherings.

In addition to church, people in the community such as Jane Njagi have been taking to Facebook Live to share personal recipes for more complex Kenyan dishes, like mukimo (mashed vegetables) and mandazis (fried bread).

“We are still together, but not together physically, so people are still communicating through social media,” Njagi said. “That is how people have been staying busy.”

At home, Njagi said her three young sons have been helping in the kitchen more than ever.

“It’s bringing a certain togetherness,” Njagi said. “One of my sons is now a professional baker.”

Her family has also taken on a new experiment: learning to cook American food.

“The other day, we made pizza from scratch,” Njagi said. “I’ve been in the United States for almost 20 years and I have never made pizza from scratch. That was very interesting.”

Many Kenyans are also taking to traditional remedies to keep themselves healthy, like mixing hot water, lemon, ginger and honey.

“Herbal remedies have been there since time immemorial,” said Barack Nyakudi. “That was our way of treating people when we didn’t have medications.”

Jane Ngagi’s son, Justin

Many in the Kenyan community are using WhatsApp to continue fellowshipping in isolation, according to Marie Macari, first lady of Breakthrough Church.

“We have WhatsApp groups for the entire church and for the women,” Marie Macari said. “We are putting Bible verses there to encourage each other.”

Njagi said that while quarantine has been increasingly difficult in a time when community members need each other more than ever, the app has been used to fill in the gap of physical connection.

“One of the people had a death in the family,” Njagi said. “They communicated through WhatsApp and people got together and contributed.” (It is a custom for Kenyans to offer financial support in times of death, to cover funeral costs and other expenses.)

As the world struggles to deal with the realities of the coronavirus, many Kenyans are praising God for his protection. The number of coronavirus cases in Kenya is surprisingly low, although it is beginning to increase. On Wednesday (May 27), for the first time, Kenya recorded a three-digit increase in new cases over a 24-hour period, taking the national tally to 1,471. There have been 55 COVID-19 deaths in the country of 50 million people.

More than 80% of the Kenyan population identifies as Christian, according to Pew Research — and religion is playing a significant role in the community’s reaction to the pandemic.

“I think that the heart of God is on Kenya,” Oyugi said. “The Bible says that God cannot give you more than you can handle. Imagine if what we are seeing in other countries like America happens in Kenya. Our country cannot handle that.”

Despite the low number of confirmed cases in Kenya, the virus poses other challenges. Susan Williams said the country’s stay-at-home orders are contributing to other forms of suffering.

“People in the villages go to the market each day to get their daily bread,” Williams said. “Now they can’t do that. We thank God that people are not dying but there are also people going to bed hungry.”

Despite the external hardships the virus has brought upon the country, many feel the relatively low number of deaths is also evidence of God’s hand on Kenya. Williams said prayers for protection from the virus have had a significant impact on the lack of spread across the country.

“Melinda Gates said ‘Africans will see dead bodies in the streets,’” Williams said. “We haven’t seen that. People have been praying really hard and fasting about it. There is power in spoken word. Our faith has seen us through, I can say that for sure.”

Some in the Wichita Kenyan community are embracing the stay-at-home orders and using this time to strengthen their relationship with God.

“I have been reading my Bible several times a day,” Oyugi said. “It is very good to have that personal time with God. Having a relationship with God has been very important.”

Teresia Wambugu said now that socializing has come to a halt, families should focus on spending quality time eating and praying together, which is “the way the Lord wants it.”

“Every weekend, we are cooking to take food to socialize,” Wambugu said. “Now, we’re not going anywhere. But for some people that’s good. We had forgotten about God. Families weren’t eating together. Now, they are home like a family.”

Wambugu said she trusts God to see her community, and the world, through these turbulent times.

“God will protect us,” Wambugu said. “He’ll hide and cover us with his blood, even if we have masks or we don’t. The blood of Jesus can cover us from head to toe.”

Stalled Curtain Call

Stalled Curtain Call

Annick Laurent | acl2220@columbia.edu

Photo by Drew Perine/Tacoma News Tribune/Getty Images

Dressed from head to toe in red, six praise dancers performed a lyrical piece to the gospel song, “Praise is What I Do” by William Murphy. The performance was scheduled for a special women’s service at the Simpson United Methodist Church in Wilmington, Del., in mid-April. Instead, recordings from January and December 2019 screened on the videoconferencing platform Zoom.

The show must and did go on. Sort of. Christian dance ministries throughout the United States have been able to maintain some semblance of normalcy with virtual rehearsals and performances. Individual dancers and groups have found ways to simultaneously keep up with spiritual movement traditions, engage with their religious communities and adhere to social distancing.

The Delaware program was organized by a group called Melodic Movements Performing Arts Program, Inc.

Melodic Movements posted an excerpt to its Instagram account with “The Movement Continues” followed by a glittering pink heart emoji in the caption. The girls’ long crimson skirts fanned out in triangles that disappeared as almost as quickly as they took shape. Their high kicks and arabesques, as well as many twirls, falls and dips were mirrored on the shiny, orange-tinted wooden floor as their instructors and parents watched from the room’s back corners. The onlookers – some dressed in their Sunday’s best from their respective living rooms – offered warm appreciative smiles and words.

One of the group’s last praise dance performances before a live audience was for Scott AME Zion Church in late February. Wilmington natives and public officials -- including Republican Congresswoman Lisa Blunt Rochester, Democrat Representative Sherry Dorsey Walker, City Councilwoman Rysheema Dixon – and Robert Tracy, the Chief of Police, were all in attendance.

Then things changed.

Governor John Carney issued Delaware’s official shelter in place order on March 22, which went into effect at 8:00 a.m. two days later. All non-essential businesses are to remain closed until May 15 or “until the public health threat is eliminated.”

Almost all categories under “Leisure and Hospitality” were prohibited from operating. So, Melodic Movements and other performing arts companies, and independent artists, writers and performers had to shut down. It was the same case for religious organizations which are listed as “Other Services (except Public Administration).”

“God sends us through storms and valleys to strengthen our faith,” read a status posted to Melodic Movements’ Facebook page on March 15. “Despite the National Emergency, schools and business cancellation and spread of the Coronavirus, how many believe God is STILL a way maker, miracle worker, promise keeper and light in the darkness?”

Accompanying the status was a clip of the Beginner Praise Dance class ministering in the company’s studio.

The organization’s plans for the spring and summer such as its Arts Integration Camp, the annual Summer Program auditions, and the upcoming workshops had to be postponed or held remotely.

“Virtual Dance Classes are off to a great start,” a Facebook post from March 17 reads. “Never stop dancing.”

Since the governor’s order, teachers and students have been maintaining community through social media. And classes are still in session. Training in several genres including ballet, hip hop, acrobatics and majorette stylings have all been held online last and this month. The teachers have been providing instruction and encouragement, cheering them on from afar.

“During this time, let us reflect on the beautiful things that God has done for us. 1 Chronicles 16:12 tells us to, ‘Remember his marvelous works that he hath done, his wonders, and the judgements of his mouth.’ God is able to do anything but fail. Let us praise him in advance with expectancy in our hearts. ‘Because praise is what we do, even when we’re going through!’”

A Shelter in the Bronx Where the Homeless and the Friars Shelter Together

A version of this story was published in Religion News Service

A Shelter in the Bronx Where the Homeless and the Friars Shelter Together

Zoé Chevalier | zc2504@columbia.edu

Photo by Friars of the Renewal

On a sunny spring afternoon, a dozen men stand around a cornhole game. The excitement is palpable. On a video of the event, they are laughing, screaming and high-fiving each other while a loudspeaker projects the voice of the organizer. The video slows down to enjoy the gripping moment when the bean bag-like object enters the goal. Points are scored. The excitement builds. Things seem normal. But upon closer look, this group of friends consists of two very different populations: Franciscan friars, in their traditional grey habit, and homeless men.

The video was shot in mid-April by one of the missionaries at the Saint Anthony Shelter for Renewal on East 156th Street in the South Bronx. The game takes place in the courtyard area of the complex that was once a Catholic school. It has been transformed to host two friaries (St. Crispin and Our Lady of the Angels), a homeless shelter, a youth center and an auditorium. Friars and guests live in a community with each other, but the COVID-induced quarantine has intertwined their lives more than ever.

The men gathered at St. Anthony’s are an unusual response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The friars have chosen to be close to the men they serve, in effect quarantine with them until the danger passes. While they share meals, prayers and recreation, they do their best to maintain social distancing rules.

It has been something of an adjustment, both for the friars and for the homeless men. The friars have to contend with serving three meals a day, and keeping the shelter running around the clock. The guests have had to follow strict rules about drugs, alcohol and even bedtime. In the process, they have become a community.

“It’s been a challenge for them and for us, but there is a feeling that we are all in this together,” says Father John-Mary, one of the friars.


The Saint Anthony shelter is part of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, a community that was founded in the Bronx in 1987 by Benedict Groeschel and seven others. As Catholics, the friars follow the direction of the Pope, and their main values are those of poverty, chastity and obedience. But the friars distinguish themselves by continuing the tradition of St. Francis of Assisi, known for his life of penance, charity and solitude.

“We live things a little more intentionally or intensely,” says another member of the friary, Father Mark-Mary. The friars devote themselves to a life of poverty, living in the hardest neighborhoods, begging for food and depending on donations for survival. They have no personal bank accounts, little technology and devote themselves to serving the poorest. If a neighborhood got “too nice,” the friars are asked to leave to a more impoverished community, according to Mark-Mary.

The friars believe in a hands-on approach to helping the poor. “The Gospel tells us to take care of our neighbor,” says John-Mary, adding that he believes in the approach of “Give them a sandwich, not just a blessing.”

This Franciscan order has 15 friaries and about 140 friars around the world, including Ireland, Nicaragua and Honduras. At the St. Crispin Friary in the Bronx, where the shelter is located, there are about 10 friars, 20 missionaries, volunteers who come to live in the community for a year, and 30 guests, in need of shelter. It is hard to get an exact number because the friars seem to live in a number-free community, there are no limits on how many friars can join, there will always be room for one more.


Father Mark-Mary, has been with the community for 11 years, and although he lives in the other friary, Our Lady of the Angels, he now has to help out at the shelter. Mark-Mary is usually in charge of a youth program, teaching catechism to children of the neighborhood, but since the pandemic started, the complex closed its door to the outside, and the classes transitioned to Zoom. Now, he works one day a week at the shelter.

His interest in the Franciscan order came in a rather unexpected way. One night as a teenager in Orange County, California, where he grew up, Mark-Mary says he was eating at In'n'out Burger, a classic fast-food chain in California when a young man approached him and started talking about this unusual order. He was talking about “hard-core Franciscans who sleep on the ground,” said Mark-Mary, and his interest was piqued. Fresh out of college, Father Mark-Mary came to join the friary.

Joining the order is a serious process. First, the applicant does a few phone interviews with the friars, in order to assess his interest. The next step is to come visit. Once a month pre-quarantine, the friars would welcome the potential new recruits for an introduction into the friar's life. In May, applicants are invited to stay for a couple of weeks, in which they are required to take a psychological exam, to make sure that they can take on a life of penitence and service.

Postulants then start in September for 10 months, after which they are allowed to leave or go on to Novitiate, during which they start wearing the habit and choose a religious name. Four years later are the final vows. The final step, if the new Friar wants to become a priest, is to study for another four years of seminary, after which they can be ordained.


This strict life is often very different from the one their guests live. The Friars pray together four to five hours a day, according to Father Mark-Mary, and most of their remaining time is spent serving others at the shelter, the food bank or the youth program that they run. There is often not much time for leisure, and the commitment is complete and life-long.

Before the quarantine, Jorge, one of the guests at the shelter, would spend his days walking around the neighborhood, take the subway downtown and go to WholeFoods, get a coffee, sit in the park and watch a movie, he would wait for the time to pass until he could get back to the shelter. Some other guests spent their days at the library, where they could watch movies on their phones or play chess together. Others would go to work or look for a job or apartment. Some had social workers meetings and programs to go to.

Every night, Jorge would take the mandatory breathalyzer, and drop his belongings in box 23. These were things like food and pills that were not allowed in the rooms, he also had to give away his phone, which stayed in the office for the night. The men’s belongings are often searched for drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, and any “risqué publications,” all forbidden according to John-Mary. Brother Patrick explained that “It is a catholic environment, guests are immersed in the norms of the community,” although they do not have to be catholic to be offered a room.

Jorge would then have dinner and activities with the men, and retreat to his room. At 9 p.m. the lights would go off and come back on at 5:30 a.m. the next day. Jorge is not a morning person, and having to do all his chores, shower, eat breakfast and be out the door by 6:45 was always a struggle. He would often forget his wallet behind.

These different lifestyles often clash. “I don’t like my freedom taken away from me,” says Jorge, laughingly, adding that he is very grateful the friars offered him a place to stay, and that “They are very strict but there is a reason why (...) I've never heard of a shelter like that.”


The shelter runs on order, discipline and a fine-tuned schedule. But now everything has changed. Having the men stay in around the clock while maintaining social distancing rules has been a challenge. The guests now eat in shifts, to avoid being all in the same room at the same time, they wear masks, and most importantly, are not allowed out of the complex.

Some rules have changed during the quarantine, so the men are allowed to have their phones during the day, and smoke in the little garden outside the shelter. Jorge used this opportunity to connect to his sister's Netflix to watch action movies and play games on his phone to avoid getting bored.

To occupy the guests, socially distanced movie nights are organized every other day, where they watch “family-friendly movies” found on Pureflix, a Christian version of Netflix.

The friars even buy guests cigarettes, but only three or four are allowed a day. Jorge, who just left the shelter to live with his mother, laughs during our interview: “I’ve already smoked three since we started talking!”

The shelter structures and discipline is good for him, Jorge thinks, but he also struggles with the added control exerted on him during the quarantine. Now he only gets out once a week for his medical visit, driven by one of the friars. Before leaving the complex, he had to explain why his appointment was necessary and let one of the friars speak with his doctor. “I didn’t sign up for that,” says Jorge. He was uncomfortable with his doctors learning that he was homeless.


Because of high demand, Jorge’s spot at the shelter was not easy to get, and he was willing to sacrifice some liberty in order to be part of this special community. When the quarantine started, he had already been there for five months but decided to stay at the shelter.

Jorge used to be a cook, but his life took a turn when he lost his job due to a disability that made it hard for him to walk and breathe. He would drop hot pans in the kitchen, shaking, he would put himself in danger, and was eventually fired. Without this income, he soon wasn't able to pay for rent, and his landlord decided to take him to court. Jorge packed his belongings in a big bag and left his Bronx apartment, where he had been living for the past 12 years with nowhere to go. He headed to 14th street and spent a week sleeping in a park, in the subway, or on a makeshift bed in front of the Salvation Army.

He relied on people he met on the streets to figure out his next move: “I had never been in this environment, I had never been homeless before,” he says. One day he met a man who told him about a shelter on Lafayette Street, he headed there and stayed a few nights. There he met another man, who had just come from the St Anthony shelter, and got kicked out because he started using again. There might be a free bed now he said, Jorge trekked to the Bronx to try.

At 6:30 p.m. every evening, men lined up at the door of the Saint Anthony Shelter for Renewal in the Bronx, coming back to one of the 30 beds available for the night. Some had been there since 9 a.m. to get one of the few openings when someone leaves, usually after a six months stay. When the doors opened, they were breathalyzed and had access to a bed, a hot dinner and breakfast. At 6:45 a.m. the next day they would be on their way in the streets of New York City, living their lives for 12 hours before curfew.

Jorge came five days in a row around 5 a.m., he wanted to be first in line in case a bed opened up. On the fifth day, there was an opening and after a negative breathalyzer, he was admitted. In the meantime, he heard that his friend who told him about St Anthony died of an overdose. “He was a good guy,” says Jorge, who himself had been clean for three months “I know what addiction does, ” he added, “I get high in my head and I end up alone, miserable, broke and unhappy.” The shelter provides solace from these problems and a place to reconnect with his Catholic upbringing.


Easter was not the most festive this year. Usually, all the friars from across the friaries get together and have a nice meal for Holy Thursday, this did not happen this year. Although the liturgy was the same, “it was all much simpler” said Father Mark-Mary. No flowers decorated the Church, and the doors were not open for Sunday mass. The music was much simpler too, without the usual 15 musicians who would usually come.

But despite their best efforts to avoid any outside interaction, COVID did not spare the friary. Michael Kearney, 23, a missionary has had to quarantine in his room for two weeks as he showed mild symptoms. In an interview, Kearney said that the biography of Mother Theresa, and the tomato soup and grilled cheese prepared by Jimmy, the cook, got him through. He also read the NY Times and watched a lot of Terrence Malick movies.

Five friars have had the virus, including Father Luis, the head of the shelter who Jorge describes as “the rock.” Two missionaries also showed symptoms. The six-floor of the friary has then been converted in a makeshift quarantine zone, where the men isolate and are brought meals three times a day.

Another source of worry was food supplies. The friary usually depends on a New Jersey Food Bank, but deliveries have stopped with the fear that their elderly drivers would be at risk. So others stepped in to deliver food.

Somehow Jimmy, the cook for the shelter always manages. “He’s the best,” says Jorge, adding that during the Holidays, thanks to a donation, all the men were treated to lobster tails and filet mignon. He still remembers it with emotion.

But the most heartbreaking to Father John was to see one of the volunteers who usually help out at the shelter come back to use the Food Bank for himself. After losing his job, he now needed the friars to support him, too.


Despite all this, the friars are keeping a hopeful attitude. Father Mark-Mary cited the long tradition of Franciscans serving and dying during plagues and says that it is expected to continue helping others. “We have given our life to suffer with those who are sick and vulnerable,” he says.

Jorge left the shelter a week ago and now lives with his mother in the Bronx. He missed being able to attend mass at the friary for Easter but enjoys the new found freedom he gets from walking around the neighborhood every day. He found a subsidized apartment and looks forward to moving in when the quarantine ends.

“I have been blessed,” says Jorge, who strengthened his Catholic faith at the shelter. “I speak to God in a normal basis, like he was a normal person.”

You can Zoom a Mass, but Confirmation will have to wait

A version of this story was published in Religion News Service

You can Zoom a Mass, but Confirmation will have to wait

Ricardo da Silva, S.J. | rd2920@columbia.edu

Rev. Paul Rospond presides at the Good Friday liturgy from the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in Manhattan, New York, streamed online.

Since the beginning of February, a small group of Roman Catholic young adults has been meeting at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in Manhattan, to prepare for the rite of Confirmation which they were to receive this Easter.

For the past three years, Emily da Silva-Prado, 25, had not managed to organize herself to attend Confirmation classes. When she enrolled this January, she was determined that by Easter 2020 she would be Confirmed.

But only a few weeks into da Silva-Prado’s instruction, the coronavirus would strike New York, shutting down all non-essential services in the city. Among these, religious institutions like St. Paul’s.

“To be honest with you, I just didn’t take it seriously for quite a while,” da Silva-Prado said, remembering her initial reaction to the public health crisis that has, now, crippled New York and much of the world.

But the unreality of the situation would quickly change for her.

“It got really real for me when we canceled class.”

Suddenly, the Sacrament da Silva-Prado had put off for three years, now deeply desired and had finally been preparing to receive, was left in the balance.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that during the celebration of the Sacrament of Confirmation, believers are “enriched with a special strength of the Holy Spirit” and become “true witnesses of Christ,” completing the grace they received during the Sacrament of Baptism, which most receive as a child.

Confirmation has its roots in both the Christian and Jewish traditions.

In the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles in the Christian Bible, the disciples are gathered in Jerusalem during Pentecost, a word that stems from the Greek for “fifty.”

The scripture recounts how 50 days after the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and 50 days after the Jewish celebration of Passover — “a noise like a strong driving wind” entered the room where they were gathered and with it, “tongues as of fire which parted and came to rest on each one of them.” When this happened, the disciples “were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.”

It is from this collective experience that the Christian community is said to have been born. In that instant — even though they spoke different languages — their common experience united them in understanding. That experience, Catholics say, is much like the status of their church today, a church that is spread across the world yet follows the same liturgical ritual and offers the same Sacraments to believers everywhere.

A first-generation American Brazilian, da Silva-Prado was raised Catholic. But as a teenager, when the time came for her to be confirmed, she had other things on her mind.

“This is full disclosure,” she said, looking down, her cheeks growing redder and redder. “It was more for a boy.”

She left the Catholic Church so that she could spend more time with her high school sweetheart.

As a young high schooler at the time, she reckoned she could fulfill both her desire to go to church and to be with her boyfriend, by going to his Brazilian Baptist church instead. Not long after, she encouraged her mother to join her — leaving her father to attend Catholic Mass on his own.

But two years ago, following a “conversion” trip to Italy, da Silva-Prado, who is an art historian and educator of ancient religious works at The Frick Collection, decided it was time to return to the church of her childhood.

“I don’t know,” she said, “When I was at the different churches; when I was in Rome; when I went to the Vatican — something happened where it just all made sense.” It was then that da Silva-Prado decided to begin Confirmation classes. But, short of two months in, with the coronavirus taking hold in New York, her class was quickly forced to find a new way to meet.

After the citywide shutdown, the priest teaching the class, the Rev. Paul Rospond, was determined to continue the program he began teaching at the parish center. “I can actually see the people’s faces on Zoom,” he said, laughing at a discovery that now seemed silly to him. “It took me a week to figure it out!”

Before the coronavirus hit — a time now jokingly referred to as time B.C. — the priest, who is 68 years old, had never taught a class on Zoom, the online video conferencing platform that allows people from all over to meet in a virtual room. “It’s a little more difficult,” he said. “You don’t get the same kind of rapport or feedback.” But, “I’m grateful that I have a way to continue, that gives me some hope that we’re finding ways to continue our ministry. That’s very important. Now, when people will get confirmed, who knows.”

“It’s a time where we really have no precedent,” said da Silva-Prado as she tried to make sense of the shape her faith would take in forced isolation from her community. “It’s been odd doing it through Zoom. It’s not like in-person where you can kind of be, ‘Oh wait, I didn’t quite get that’ or ‘Could you repeat that?’ or ‘Can we go a little bit further in-depth?’.

The new and somewhat stilted format of the class is proving especially difficult because this time has forced da Silva-Prado to think deeply and differently about her life, without the reassuring security net of personal face-to-face contact with a priest or her friends. “I think that this is a time where we’re being asked to take stock of our lives and really evaluate what’s important; what is not,” she said.

“What is that life in the church when we don’t have the physical building anymore?’”

She took a second to digest her question.

“I’ve never lived in a time where Church has been canceled — ever,” she added. “That’s just so scary and very frightening. You don’t know when it’s gonna come back.”

“We are participating through watching Mass online; watching Mass on television,” da Silva-Prado said. “But the physical Mass, I thought that I could attend forever and ever and ever — till kingdom come — is canceled.”

This time of forced introspection and self-quarantining is testing, but da Silva-Prado is confident “there will be an end to this,” she said. “It will be like the raising of Lazarus, that will be amazing and wonderful and miraculous.”

Still, she doesn’t want to avoid the pain nor lose sight of the seriousness this moment has called her to recognize. “There needs to be this death first,” she said, recalling the present unabating cycle of death taking place in New York. “There needs to be the weeping. And Jesus will weep with us and he’s there in our suffering as well. And I’m positive and I’m confident in that. I just think that it’s going to be longer than we expect.”

The prolonged wait to return to her church is only exacerbated by the indefinite wait to be Confirmed.

The Confirmation ceremony is usually presided over by the local bishop and involves an elaborate set of rituals. It is not something that can be done on Zoom.

In the traditional Confirmation ceremony, the bishop smears oil on the foreheads of those being confirmed and lays his hands on their heads. The ritual is meant as a sign that strengthens the faithful to persevere in the Catholic life and to serve as full-fledged members of the church. A strength upon which many now rely.

“The touch is important,” said Rospond. “The anointing with the oil is important; gathering together for the sacrament is important; the connection with a bishop is also important.”

For da Silva-Prado, her classmates and many who were expecting to be received formally into the Catholic Church this Easter — which last year in the United States were more than 37,000 people — they will have to wait indefinitely for a time when they can, again, gather inside churches. No date has been set for this year’s Confirmation.

But when it does come, da Silva-Prado said she will be ready. “I think that Confirmation is going to mean a lot more when this is all over.”